Asking users for steps to reproduce bugs, and other dumb ideas
A common misconception about software development:
- When a bug occurs, users will it into a tracking system with detailed information on how to reproduce it.
- A developer walks through the given steps to reproduce the issue, finds the problem, and submits a fix
That's based on several bad assumptions. Most users will not bother to enter bugs into your system. It is an unselfish act of altruism to enter a bug report. The user knows that it could be months, or even years before the bug is fixed, but she needs to be finished with your app by 5pm today.
The second problem is that many bugs are not reproducible. Maybe the bug depends on something the user was doing, the fact that she always clicks on the okay button instead of pressing enter, or because she installed a printer driver that replaced part of the OS with a modified, out of date library. Maybe your application is the first thing she uses in the morning while the hard drive is still chugging and 99 other programs are trying to update themselves at the same time.
Even worse: sometimes the problem just goes away on its own.
It's tempting to dismiss bug reports that you cannot reproduce. As a developer, you have enough work to do. The least they can do is tell you how to reproduce the problem then you'll have a chance at fixing it. Thousands of open bugs are closed or left to languish for years because they cannot be reproduced.
Refusing to fix a serious problem until you have reproducible steps is a cop-out excuse for lazy developers, who would rather get back to working on the physics engine for that secret flight simulator easter egg. That excuse might work for non-commercial software, but in the commercial software business, it will lose customers and get you fired.
How to fix non-reproducible bugs
Use a logging system
The best way to fix non-reproducible issues is to have adequate logging in the first place. Whenever the user does something, selects a menu, clicks "cancel", or inhales, record that action somewhere. Keep the file small, so the old parts scroll away. Take care to scrub anything that would violate privacy. Then, when a problem occurs, you can ask the user to attach the log file to the problem report.
You can use a well designed log as input to a test framework. You can then automatically reproduce the issue as many times as you need to test the fix, and ultimately make it part of your regression test suite.
Otherwise, fix by inspection
In 1981, Mark Weiser studied how experts debug software. The very best programmers create a mental slice of the program, so they only have to think about a few functions at a time. Weiser defined a program slice as the minimal program that still reproduces the problem. He developed an automatic method for finding the program slice to make debugging easier.
Unfortunately, thirty years later we are still doing things manually, and debugging requires lots of creative detective work. Use source control to ensure that you are looking at the same version of the software that your customer is using. Work backwards from the error message, keeping careful notes of the reverse call graph. If the X variable was set, what were the possible values of Y? Could this else clause have run? It's grueling work, and it takes days, but at the end of it, you will have a list of potential paths through the system that caused the error. And now you can methodically fix each one of them, without ever having reproduced the problem.
Sometimes, though, you will find that the problem logically could not have happened. In that case, you can either add more logging, or detect and recover, or do both.
Otherwise, detect and recover
Okay, so you had adequate logging. You've mentally traced through the source code for days. You've written additional tests for different theories and failed to reproduce the problem. The only way it could have happened is if a hole in the universe opened up and changed the laws of physics for a moment, or cosmic rays rewrote some register values. You will just have to detect and recover.
If slow memory leak causing the application to crash after three weeks, make sure your application restarts itself every few hours. If your complicated data structure somehow gets into an inconsistent state, write a function to go through and fix it after every single change. You get the idea.
Detecting and recovering from a mysterious bug is sometimes the only way to turn a major show-stopper into a minor annoyance. It is not the final solution, but it is a way to give you more time to find the real cause.
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